This article about the failure of Russian universities to place in the top 200 of a well-respected ranking seems to epitomize much of what happens in Russia. Poor placement in the rankings? Either (a) trash the ranking system and advocate the creation of a Russian one, or (b) trash the ranking system and say “we don’t need no steenking rankings.” Stubbornly refuse to reflect the realities of the internationalization of research in the modern age. Cling to the glory days of a system that thrived, after a fashion, in the Soviet times:
Dismayed with Moscow State University’s lackluster ranking, its rector, Viktor Sadovnichy, said Russia needed to create its own ranking because international ratings are not objective concerning Russian schools.
The idea was explicitly backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Russian rectors last month.
. . . .
“Russia’s research publication output is relatively low,” Baty said.
The ranking is based on 13 elements, including research income, ratio of international and domestic staff, income from industry, teaching, and citation impact. The ranking’s editors used data provided by Thomson Reuters to make their conclusions for the first time this year.
Russia’s limited volume of research publications indexed by Thomson Reuters, as well as those publications’ limited influence as measured by citations, is reflected in the rankings, which employ both publication volume and citation counts among the 13 separate performance indicators. Also, the system of measuring was changed this year so traditional prestige no longer holds much weight in the final reckoning.
“All these factors will make it difficult for Russia to be recognized among the top 200,” Baty said.
One of the measurements that Russian scholars frequently fail to fit is the citation index because many of their articles are written in Russian and remain unknown for the majority of the global scientific community. But even the country’s top scholars don’t encourage English.
When asked about Russia’s low citation index, Russian Academy of Sciences president Yury Osipov said in an interview with Gazeta.ru that Russian scholars don’t have to learn English because if “one is a high-level specialist, he will study Russian and read articles in Russian.”
No doubt, with this attitude prevailing On High, these high level specialists will study Russian and read articles in Russian and more importantly, write articles in Russian. And remain known only in Russia; contribute to scholarship only in Russia; be isolated from scholarly discourse outside of Russia; and, as a result, be marginal and marginalized.
It is not necessarily fair, in some cosmic sense, but it is a fact: English is the language of scholarly discourse in virtually every discipline. A lingua franca is enormously important in advancing scholarly endeavors by facilitating the creation of a pool of knowledge that researchers around the world can add to and draw from. The network effects are of seismic importance. To cut off one’s nation from this deliberately and pridefully does no favors to one’s country, let alone to the cause of advancing knowledge generally.
To cut off one’s nation from this deliberately and pridefully does no favors to one’s country, let alone to the cause of advancing knowledge generally. The biggest casualties of this stubborn pride are Russian scholars and would be scholars. Some, who want to remain in their homeland, labor away in obscurity and do not achieve the impact that they are capable of. Others, stifled by this parochialism, leave and seldom look back. (Cf., the recent winners of the physics Nobel.)
This attitude is emblematic of Russia’s historically ambivalent relationship to the wider world. That ambivalence has always had a cost, and that cost is becoming ever higher as the world becomes more interconnected. The cost is particularly high in research scholarship.
The article quotes my friend, Sergei Guriev:
Sergei Guriev, rector of the New Economic School in Moscow and a Morgan Stanley professor of economics, said Russian universities “have been losing ground not only to their OECD counterparts but also to the universities from developing countries.” For example, China has six universities in the 200 institutions ranked by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
“Modernization and a knowledge-based economy by definition require advanced human capital. There can be no modernization of the economy — and of society — without the modernization of higher education,” Guriev told The Moscow Times.
That’s obviously correct. If Russia hopes to advance beyond the status of the world’s largest raw material appendage, it will need to revitalize its educational system–higher education certainly, but primary and secondary education too. It is interesting to note that Sergei’s New Economic School is, as the name suggests, a new school that post-dates the Soviet collapse. It is not a legacy institution, and is largely independent of government funding and control. This makes it more dynamic and productive: in my fields of economics and finance, NES scholars are disproportionately represented among Russians who have had impact in mainstream, non-Russian publications.
In contrast, the dead hand of the Soviet past symbolized by fossils like Osipov, and which still looms large at the biggest Russian universities, will doom Russian traditional universities to even deeper oblivion. Responding to scathing evaluations of university performance (which are based on relatively objective factors such as publication counts, impact factors, and citations) by calling for Russia to create its own rankings, or to disregard rankings altogether, rather than adapt to and integrate with current international norms of scholarship, is to deny a sad reality.
The Russian educational establishment seems in desperate need of a 12 step program of some sort. The first step of which is to recognize the existence of a problem. No ranking system is perfect, but most ranking systems will not relegate a truly great, or even very good, university to the NR category. By denying that, and refusing to take the first step of recognizing a problem, Russia risks losing yet more ground. Forget Skolkovo, and move to integrating Russia in the realm of global scholarship, so its researchers can benefit from and contribute to the knowledge commons. To do otherwise is to condemn Russian universities to become even more isolated academic backwaters.
* This brings to mind a conversation with my seat-mate on a flight from Moscow to the US in 2005. My now friend was flying to the US to study on a Fulbright. I remember telling her that I was well aware of the great fortune of being a native English speaker in the world of scholarship. It is arbitrary, but it is reality.